(EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home after four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of the 1st Cavalry Division during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and his articles on the war as he saw it will continue in The Enquirer daily.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
I left the Catecka Tea Plantation for one last look at the First Brigade’s share of the Plei Me campaign even as Col. Thomas Brown, commander of the Third Brigade, and Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark, commander of the First Brigade, were conferring over an operations map.
Joe Gallaway of United Press International had achieved a ride with Lt. Col. John B. Stockton in his command ship, decorated with four machine guns because Lt. Col. Stockton likes to pursue a hobby while flying through the trees, and I got aboard with Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Kennedy and Sp5 Steve Lannigan, constant companions of the First Squadron Ninth Cavalry’s commander.
A third newsman, a photographer who had newly arrived in the country, came over and asked if he could join the group. While room was being made for him Vo Hynn, NBC-TV photographer, and Robin Mannick, the goateed Associated Press representative, spotted the group and came over.
Somehow, the helicopter had become so crowded with the gathering clan of reporters and photographers that an additional chopper had to be put into the fleet, this one flown by CWO John Goldenfein.
Sp4 Reginald McTerr was handling an M-16 rifle in the door of this craft and there was also a full set of machine guns mounted. The new photographer joined Gallaway, Hynn (an imperturbable Vietnamese) and myself in the second ship.
“Since you want to take some pictures of the area, you ride on the outside. I’ll loosen the strap for you so you can lean out,” McTerr said to the new man.
CWO Goldenfein turned around and grinned.
“Low and green! We’ll shoot some contours for you and see what we stir up,” he said.
He shot some contours. He contoured the trunks of trees and careened through branches, banking the UH1B helicopter as if it were a fighter plane.
“Welcome back to the Cavalry, Charlie,” he shouted over his shoulder, topping a rise in the ground by inches and hurriedly slamming the chopper toward a minute opening between some towering trees which appeared on the other side.
It was good, honest 1st Cavalry style flying, but even though I was a fairly hardened veteran it was exhilarating and I felt like giving cowhand whoops and slapping my hat on the Huey’s flanks.
The effect on Vo Hynn was surprising, more, it was almost shocking.
Vo Hynn is possessed of one of the most inscrutable poker faces in the Orient renowned for such visages.
I have seen him shot at with no change in his expression and have seen him win a respectable pot in a 25-cent limit poker game without a flicker showing in his eyes even though I knew he had bluffed his way through.
A man who can conceal his feelings under those circumstances, who does not give even a hint of nervousness on the one hand or triumph on the other, and who suddenly beams a big white grin at you has to have reason.
The reason I found when I looked at our photographer friend.
He had come to South Viet Nam on a wave of publicity concerning his exploits on other risky assignments, but this was his very first helicopter ride and he was getting the full course with appetizers and garnish.
He had three cameras flying around his neck in abandoned disarray and one hand clutching the helicopter ceiling while the other was clenched on the squirming arm of poor Gallaway.
He was shouting in Gallaway’s ear as the UPI reporter tried vainly to release the grip on his arm and restore circulation.
“Tell them to stop this thing! Tell them I came here to take pictures, not to fight their war! Get this thing down,” he was screaming.
Gallaway tried to placate him by pointing to various memorable scenes which flashed by a few feet below.
“That is the Plei Me Special Forces camp right there, no it’s back there now, no it’s up front now. . . nuts. . . turn loose of my arm! Look, this is the way to fly these things come on, turn loose,” Gallaway was shouting back.
Vo Hynn looked politely out the other side of the helicopter as the landscape swept by or sometimes around us. He made a magnificent effort and concealed his grin. His shoulders kept shaking, however.
He leaned over to me.
“Some people are very nervous in here,” he said gravely.
A startled man with a rifle, plodding along a path near a Montagnard village, threw one wild shot at our chopper as we swept by. The advantage of flying low in forested and rough country came to me again.
He had actually not seen the helicopters until they were over him and when he fired they were already zipping through trees ahead of him and his bullet didn’t have a chance.
The two helicopters, both heavily equipped to enter into duels of this kind, went back after him. I missed what happened because of a horrendous scream from our photographer friend. I thought possibly he had been wounded in an especially sensitive portion of his body, in fact, and was worried.
What happened was that the M-60 machine guns right outside the open door by him had opened up all at once and the wild chain of noise from them was swept into the poor man’s ears all in a jolt. It was too much for him. He almost clambered over Gallaway at one point trying to get to the center portion of the helicopter but the loose belt kept snapping him back.
Gallaway finally got him calmed down enough to sit in his seat again and jerked the seat belt very tight, very firmly, and then offered to bribe me to change places with him.
“This guy is either going to make a nervous wreck out of me or cripple me! He has yelled in my ear until I’m deaf and my right arm feels like it has been sprained,” he yelled.
I told him that any good airline stewardess was able to handle small nervous tensions among the passengers and that he would have to turn in his wings if he didn’t get his side of the helicopter calmed down enough for a landing.
We got back to Catecka finally and I still didn’t know the outcome of the shooting - it turned out the VC were killed - or have very many memories of that swing over the old battlegrounds except for the green of jungle and the green of the photographer’s face.
He got out of the helicopter, we were riding it on to Pleiku but he turned down our invitation, and said that he would try to catch a jeep.
It was a very brave thing for him to do. The Viet Cong had been busy exploding land mines just south of us on the highway and I wouldn’t have ridden a jeep down it except as an absolute last resort!
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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